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August 24, 2017

Valkyria Revolution: It’s So Bad (Part 3)

So I have a question to start off: why do things suck?

By “things” I mean, of course, products in the media and entertainment industries.  Movies, TV shows, books, music, video games -- all of that and more.  One would think, or at least hope, that if a product is allowed to grace store shelves (physical or digital), then it should be good enough to merit that.  The gatekeepers on all walks of entertainment should, in theory, do their jobs and keep the trash from becoming available for purchase.  Right?

But even if we overlook the business aspect of the equation, there’s still the creative input and vision that goes behind the stuff that sucks.  As of this post, it’s 2017.  Media consumption is easier than it’s ever been thanks to various technological advents -- and it’ll only get easier from here.  Creators and audiences alike should have an idea by now of what works and what doesn’t.  What’s good and what’s bad.  What’s appreciable and what’s unacceptable.  Audiences should be able -- if not willing -- to call out fouls in a product.  But they shouldn’t have to reach that point in the first place, because good content creators should have the skill to avoid some of their respective media’s worst vices.

That’s how it should be.  Except it isn’t.  Valkyria Revolution is proof of that.

*sigh* Let’s talk about the main character.

His name is Amleth Grønkjær, and he’s the fucking worst.  I just thought I’d throw that out there to start off.  Keep it fresh on your mind.

So Amleth -- as you can guess from the last two posts -- is one of the Five Traitors, a band of schemers maligned by history for pushing Jutland into a war with DUR ENNNPIARRR.  Whereas his four pals have their dirty fingers in the government, the press, manufacturing and intelligence, Amleth serves as their boots-on-the-ground, man-on-the-inside soldier.  That is, as captain of the Anti-Valkyria Squad, he’s tasked with leading an elite [citation needed] group of special-equipped soldiers through high-stakes missions, and presumably to take out the super-empowered warrior woman who might appear along the way. 

But as a member of the Traitors, Amleth is doing more than ensuring his squad’s victory.  He’ll eagerly and willingly split off from the group to take on solo objectives.  One of those special missions involves “our hero” taking up his giant sword so he can tear into the resident political bigwig of DEH IMPHFIRRRE.  In another instance, he’ll break off from his team mid-mission -- during a two-pronged demolition run, no less -- so he can go do whatever.  I guess that’s just a privilege his rank affords him.

Now, I’ll be honest.  There’s a pretty good chance that I’m biased here.  I acknowledge that.  I won’t run away from the fact that I’m looking much too fondly upon Welkin from Valkyria Chronicles 1, and haven’t given Amleth the time of day he deserves.  But when I first saw him in-game, my instinctive thought was “That’s just fuckin’ Kirito.”

I know that’s not a fair assessment.  For starters, Amleth and Kirito aren’t one-to-one clones of each other, least of all because of their weapon choices.  Second, calling someone a Kirito clone is just a step shy of stabbing someone and naming their bloody wound as a stigma.  You probably shouldn’t invoke that sacrilegious name unless you have a good reason for it.  And believe it or not, I do.  It’s not about me claiming that the devs ripped everything about Amleth from the Sword Art Online wiki.  It’s about the affect here.  The intent.  The end result. 

And in that regard, yes, Amleth is basically just Kirito -- which means that he’s a poorly-assembled mass of tropes and conventions designed to pander to certain tastes above all else.  Alternatively?  Whereas Welkin and VC1 tried to be more than just an anime, having Amleth in this latest game makes VR (and the character himself) into the most anime anime that ever anime’d.

Of course, when I say “anime”, I don’t mean any of the classics, or the golden oldies, or contemporary fare, or anything that’s even remotely good.  I mean the bad ones.  The really bad ones.

I don’t even know where to begin with this guy’s personality, but conventional wisdom would have me say “he doesn’t have one” and leave it at that.  And you know what?  That’s fair.  Amleth is the worst kind of protagonist -- someone whose emotional spectrum is as wide as the average Tic-Tac.  You can’t count on him to show anything more than unflinching stoicism and generic rage.  Maybe not even that second one in most cases; granted I tapped out at the seven-hour mark, so there’s time for him to be more than nothing.  On the other hand, if you have to wait seven hours for a character -- the main character -- to be anything more than a grumpy block of wood, then you’ve got carte blanche to fire your disc into the stratosphere.

I’m not even joking here.  In one scene after another, Amleth can’t even be bothered to explain his rationale, emote, or even speak.  He just kind of stands there, doing nothing except have people talk in his general direction (or exposit to him, debatably).  At one point he gets chewed out for taking on some reckless solo action that didn’t go along with the squad’s plan, and the others rightly say “Amleth, dude, what the hell?”  Amleth’s response is literally nonexistent.  He just walks off-screen without a single word.  Not even the infamous, space-filling, silence-signaling ellipses.  Oh, but don’t worry; those are in the game too.  Repeatedly.

Maybe I’m being naïve here, but I thought that main characters were supposed to be compelling.  I don’t think that’s a tall order.  I’m not saying that they have to be saintly Boy Scouts.  I’m not saying they have to be anti-heroes so edgy that they could carve out chunks of skin with just a breath.  Whether they’re dorky or cool, noble or vile, characters need to have charisma.  They need to do something to establish themselves as characters, and give a reason as to why people should follow along with their story.  Amleth doesn’t even try, and neither did the developers.  Near as I can tell, the effort started and stopped with them deciding how many belts he needed to hold up his stupid trench coat.

It’s entirely possible that Amleth being a piece of shit to the Squad was intentional -- not defensible, mind, but I’m trying very hard to play devil’s advocate for a minute.  He shows no love to his “comrades” despite being their leader; when he’s called out for going rogue for his little side objective, he spews a bunch of lines about how he values the team and trusts them and whatnot -- which (based on his tone of voice alone) makes it sound like he’s going through the motions.  When he’s with his pals the Traitors, he’s…still basically a block of wood, but he at least agrees to go out to drink with one of them.  Given that he has a history with the Traitors and none with the Squad -- except maybe Ophelia -- it makes a little bit of sense for him to treat one clique better than the other.

That doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.  Nor does it justify a character like this or his actions.

As far as I can tell, this isn’t a game where you play as the Five Traitors (even though you could probably wring a damn good game out of that with the propaganda angle alone).  It’s a game where you follow one of the Traitors, who works with the other playable characters in the Anti-Valkyria Squad.  Their synergy is crucial, but having a character that willingly goes “No!  DON’T develop past your looks and weapon sets!” means you’re slapping a ball and chain on your game from the get-go.  It was a severe miscalculation on the devs’ part based heavily on the time distribution.  Even if VR’s cutscenes are unbearably, interminably long, you’re still spending many hours more with the characters that matter.

…Except in the grand scheme of things, they don’t matter.  How could they when, over the course of over seven hours, Amleth can’t be bothered to acknowledge the existence of two or three members of the Squad?  And even if you remove Amleth from the equation, it doesn’t change the fact that the Squad is barely given anything to work with -- almost nothing beyond their standard archetypes, moving in their standard directions.  But it’s Amleth’s job as the MC to bring the most out of the cast, and he’s utterly failed at it.  Now when VR makes him have his genuine (and inevitable) power of friendship spiel, it’ll come off as hollow as well as hackneyed.

I thought you were better than this, Sega.  What happened?

The only conclusion I can draw is that everything about Amleth was intentional.  Misguided as shit, but intentional.  They wanted someone without a personality.  They wanted someone blander than a pile of damp sand.  They wanted someone who could be called Broody McBroodskins, and that would be an honor.  Why?  Because they thought it would be cool -- that someone, somewhere, somehow, would look to Amleth’s story and think “Yes!  This is a great character!  I can’t wait to slap down cash for this and future games starring him!”

I mean, when you think about it, Amleth isn’t even that cool.  It takes more than a trench coat and a giant sword to win over fans, which is where competent writing or creative vision would come in to elevate him.  The problem is that, as I see it, this wannabe badass is just a cut above a whiny mama’s boy.  His whole motivation is built around him getting revenge for what DIH OMPAPAYA for -- wait for it -- destroying the Traitors’ beloved orphanage and kidnapping (killing?) their matron.  So everything is built on the fact that Amleth, badass stoic soldier extraordinaire, misses his mommy.  It gets so bad that even a hint of her (via The Amulet of Plot Relevance) is enough to shut him down.

Look, it’s not as if having revenge as a motivation is inherently bad.  It can be if handled improperly (which happens a lot in video games -- see Watch Dogs 1 as an example), but there’s merit there, which has been proven handily elsewhere.  Make it so that Amleth has more of a reaction to the world and his state of affairs beyond the bounds of his mission.  Instead of leaving him as some sentient brick wall who can’t be arsed to react to anything, have him show ten times more emotion even when it’s not appropriate.  Have him lash out.  Make him fly off the handle.  Rejigger scenes and missions so that his anger or clouded judgment legitimately jeopardizes the Squad’s safety -- so that the Squad in turn could be characterized by questioning their leader’s fitness to serve.

As it stands?  I’d call Amleth a Broodwich Supreme, but even that doesn’t feel fitting.  Because he’s so vanilla on all fronts -- not cool, not strong, not passionate, not interesting, not chaotic, not determined -- he comes off as a half-assed character.  Everything comes off as lip service; it’s a bunch of telling (if you’re lucky) and almost zero showing.  And again, it’s possible that he gets better after seven hours, but if this was a world with any justice, he’d have established himself and why he’s the main character -- and why we should follow along with his story -- within the first hour.  If that.

In the interest of fairness, I decided to skim over some details online.  Near as I can tell, Amleth does go through a slight change over the course of the game; apparently he has a crisis once his orders lead to an NPC getting killed.  When does that happen?  No clue.  I’d hope that it’s sooner rather than later, but I’ve got no faith in VR’s quality right now.  What irks me even more, though, is that Amleth would have a freak out at any point beyond the first few hours. 

He’s not just a soldier following orders; he’s a captain, and someone who bears the weight of responsibility for (at a bare minimum) about a dozen soldiers.  Was he not prepared for even the possibility that someone could die on his watch?  And even before that, how much of a piece of shit do you have to be to potentially condemn your trusting comrades, only to maybe realize you’re being a piece of shit well into a military campaign where death is an absolute possibility from minute one?  How the hell did this guy make it up the ranks if he’s shown zero capacity to lead, let alone compassion for his fellow men?

His only qualifying trait seems to be “can use a big sword”.  And “can use magic”, I guess…which would be more impressive if he wasn’t fighting a war against soldiers who can blow his brains out from afar, mechs the size of coliseums, other soldiers who can use magic even better, and super-powered warrior women.  Notably, the Anti-Valkyria Squad -- in its first onscreen encounter with a Valkyria -- gets their collective asses kicked and would’ve died if not for the princess accidentally tapping into her Protagonist Powers.


You know, the money that went into this game could’ve gone toward feeding the homeless or treating sick animals. Just…just keep that in mind.

In case it wasn’t obvious, Amleth shouldn’t have been the main character in this game.  I’m wary of naming anyone else in VR who could’ve taken on the role, given that some of these guys seem like they’re only there to pad out the playable cast.  Still, that’s who the devs pinned their hopes and dreams on, to the point where Jet Broody appears on the cover of the game.  Not only that, but said game FORCES you to play as Amleth at points, no matter how much you don’t want to and how much more time you’ve invested into the other squad members. 

For whatever reason, Amleth is flat-out stronger than everyone else in the cast.  There might be other guys with more health, but even if you’re like me and pump every last bit of upgrade effort into Tilda, Amleth will still have decisively more attack power.  Even if you don’t put him in your party, he starts off at such a high level that he’ll still keep pace and level alongside your main team.  Inexplicably, Amleth seems like the only one who can reliably do damage to some royal, revolver-slinging asshole -- but ONLY if the player takes control of him.  But because the name of the game in VR is slowly, Amleth’s damage output isn’t much higher than the others.  So instead of whittling away an opponent’s health with a character you like tolerate, slowly, you have to do it with the guy the devs are cramming down your throat, slowly.

So, like…how did we get here?  How did the game reach this point?

I’m at once baffled and fascinated at how bad VR is.  I know that it’s a spinoff, so that A) the standard VC games presumably aren’t going to follow this model, and B) it’s an experiment, and sometimes experiments go wrong.  But the game just seems like an assemblage of bad ideas, rookie mistakes, shortsightedness, and unearned bravado.  Did they run out of time?  Did they run out of money?  Or was the amount of talent in such short supply that it morphed into anti-talent?  I don’t know.  Honestly, I’m not even sure I want to know.  The damage has been done, and -- assuming that this doesn’t kill the franchise, especially its hopes of coming to the west again -- it’s time for us to move on.

But on that last note, there’s one more thing I want to bring up.  There was an interview a while back featuring the VR crew on some of the decisions made, like why they didn’t bring in the main artist and composer from the VC days.  More importantly, they explained that VR was created specifically for the Japanese market, with claims that they wanted to stick with a uniquely Japanese style, and make a game that couldn’t be made in the west.  Given that, maybe it’s not so surprising that this game is a trash fire.

It’s true that some stories and products are better-suited for certain peoples and regions.  I’ll grant them that.  But the best stories out there have appeal that goes beyond borders, be they geographical or social.  Ideas don’t have to be limited by any random factor, no matter how much you hem and haw about it; if you get bogged down, you’re only limiting what you can do, and casting away the infinite possibilities at your disposal.  So if you ask me, the reason why VC1 did as well as it did -- despite being anime enough to get an anime adaptation -- is because it understood the border-breaking potential of a good product.  Just because it was made in Japan didn’t mean that it couldn’t appeal to other sensibilities.  Even if you look past the basics of competent storytelling included in the package, you can’t use “Oh, this isn’t for you guys, it’s for us” as an excuse or a justification for needless limits.

For that reason, VC1 earned its place in the hearts of countless gamers -- and the recent success on Steam proved that there’s an audience for another game in the series.  Conversely?  There’s no future whatsoever for VR.  It’s a hodgepodge of half-hearted, hackneyed anime tropes parading as a serious war drama.  It’s a slog whose gameplay makes you wish for more cutscenes, and whose cutscenes make you wish for more gameplay.  It’s cheap, it’s clumsy, it’s childish, it’s coarse -- and above all else?

It’s so bad.  And that’s the bottom line.

*mic drop*

*exit stage left*

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